Wolves’ Knight Suspended for PED Usage

Halfway through the season, the Michigan Gray Wolves seem to be cruising toward a playoff spot and a strong shot at capturing their second Vandy.  Their otherwise marvelous season hit a speed bump today, however, as C Wesley Knight was hit with a 15-game suspension after failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs.

Wesley Knight

The 28-year-old Knight tested positive for an anabolic steroid called Tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG.  THG is a well-known drug, allegedly used by high-profile athletes from Barry Bonds to Marion Jones.  The steroid’s primary purpose is to assist with the building of muscle mass, which allows athletes to participate in more rigorous workouts and recover more quickly from injuries or intensive training.

“We have a no-tolerance policy for drug abuse in this league,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell in the press conference announcing the suspension.  “No matter who you are or how good your team is, if you’re using PEDs, you’re going to be caught and you’re going to be punished.

Knight is in his fourth season as Michigan’s third-line center.  He has been struggling this season – generating only 1 goal and 7 assists so far this season – and has seen his ice time steadily decrease as the season has gone on.  He acknowledged that he started taking PEDs this season in hopes of getting back to his usual production.

“It’s been tough for me this year, so tough,” said Knight.  “I’ve just been looking for any way I can to turn things around.  And I took a stupid shortcut, trying to get better.  I’m so embarrassed and humiliation.  I apologize to my teammates and the fans.  This is completely on me.”

Wolves coach Ron Wright condemned Knight’s PED use.  “There’s no excuse for that kind of thing in this game, none,” Wright told reporters.  “Hockey’s a tough sport, and you’ve got to be in good condition to play.  PEDs are an easy out, for players who don’t want to put in the work.  Wes is a good player and he puts in the work, which makes this so disappointing.  I’d expect a lot better out of him.  I’m just really disappointed, that’s the bottom line.”

At the All-Star Game earlier in the week, rumors were swirling that a Michigan player had failed a drug screening and was about to be suspended.  Many of the whispers centered around LW Vladimir Beruschko, who has had a surprisingly strong season at age 35.  After Knight’s suspension was announced, Beruschko stood up for his teammate.

“All of our team likes Wes,” said Beruschko.  “He made a mistake, but all of us make mistakes sometimes.  He was a man to admit it and take responsibility.  He has to serve the suspension, but when he comes back, we will all welcome him back.  We have a job to do together, to win the championship.”

Advertisements

Change of the Guard Seems Imminent in SHL’s Last Week

Going into the final week of the 2017 SHL season, neither division race is terribly close, unlike the last couple of seasons.  Barring a seismic shift in the coming week, we aren’t going to see anything as dramatic as the 2016’s Hershey-Washington last-game showdown for the division.  Nonetheless, even if things unfold as expected, the results will still have their share of surprises.  As it stands, neither of last year’s Finals opponents will make a return trip this season.

In the West, the Michigan Gray Wolves head into the season’s final week trailing the Anchorage Igloos by 6 points.  The Wolves and Igloos have been the division powers since the league’s inception, so it’s no surprise that they will finish one-two yet again.  But the Wolves have been unable to make up the ground they lost when top scorers Hunter Bailes and Warren Marlow went down with injuries in midseason.  “We’ve fought hard all year, and I know we’re going to keep battling to the end,” said Wolves RW Gordon Lunsford.  “But we’re in a difficult spot right now.”

Michigan’s best chance to narrow the gap came on Wednesday, when they faced the Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena.  The game was a true heavyweight clash, as the Wolves stifled Anchorage’s league-best offense, with the Igloos responding in kind.  After two scoreless periods, Michigan actually drew first blood seven minutes into the third, when Lunsford dented the twine on a hard slapshot between Anchorage goalie Ty Worthington‘s legs.  “That got us fired up,” said Lunsford.  “We thought this was the goal that was going to set us on a run to take the division.”

But with just over a minute left in the game, the Igloos tied the game on a fluky goal by D Sebastian Pomfret, who flicked a rebound that bounced off the back of Michigan netminder Dirk Lundquist back and into the goal.  That sent the game to overtime, where Wolves C Wesley Knight committed a tough holding-the-stick penalty.  15 seconds into the power play, Igloos LW Les Collins beat Lundquist stick-side to seal a 2-1 win.

“That was a back-breaker,” admitted Lunsford.  “To go from thinking you’re on the road to the division to feeling like you’re on the brink of elimination… it’s a kick in the gut, no question.”

As surprising as the West race has been, things have been even more shocking in the East.  The Washington Galaxy have won the division in each of the last two seasons and established themselves as the class of the division.  When they caught fire out of the All-Star Break, winning 10 in a row and snatching first place away from the Hershey Bliss, it looked like they were set up to run to yet another title.  It hasn’t unfolded that way, though, as the Bliss have grabbed the lead right back over the last couple of weeks.

And while Hershey has played well, the race in the East has been a story of Washington collapse.  The Galaxy have dropped 11 of 15 over the last three weeks, and they head into the final week of the season 8 points back of the Bliss.  For a team with a reputation for stepping it up in the second half, their dismal performance has been completely unexpected.  “We can’t figure it out,” said LW Casey Thurman.  “We know we can do better than this, but it’s kind of like we’re stepping on the gas and there’s nothing there.”

Certainly, the Galaxy’s using scoring punch has been absent during their recent skid.  They’ve fallen from sixth in the league in goals scored to second-to-last, ahead of only Quebec.  Several of their stars, including Thurman (2 goals in the last 15 games), C Eddie Costello (3 goals), RW Jefferson McNeely (3 goals), and C J.C. Marais (2 goals), have been in slumps.  But the offense hasn’t been the only culprit.  The normally stout defense, which allowed fewer than two and a half goals per game over the first two-thirds of the season, has allowed over three per game during their slide.  Backup goalie Ron Mason has lost his last five starts.  Their special units have flatlined over the last three weeks, with their power play dropping from a league-leading 24.1% success rate to a middle-of-the-pack 19.6%, and their penalty kill going from 82.9% efficiency to 78.8%.  “It’s like it’s all falling apart at once,” said Costello.

For the Bliss, who have heard over and over that they’re too soft, too sloppy, or too star-dependent to beat the Galaxy, the turnabout has been pretty sweet.  “We’ve taken a lot of crap over the years about how we can never win the big one, or how Washington’s got our number,” said Bliss C Justin Valentine.  “We’ve never bought into that story, but we knew we were were going to keep hearing it until we proved it.”  On Saturday, Hershey came into Constellation Center and walloped Washington 5-1.  “That one definitely felt good,” said Valentine.  “To be able to go into their building and shut them down like that… it gave us confidence that this isn’t going to be like the other years.  It’s a new era for us.”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 4

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 3, WASHINGTON GALAXY 2 (OT)

Whatever else you might say Game 4 of the SHL Finals, it finished off with a bang.  The first three games of the series have followed a familiar pattern: two periods of tense, grinding, defense-first play, followed by a third period of wide-open firewagon hockey.  In Game 4, the high-flying action was compressed into the final 5 minutes, as a slow-paced game turned frenetic at the end.  It took more than the allotted 60 minutes, but ultimately the Michigan Gray Wolves, thanks to a little-used reserve, pulled out a 3-2 overtime victory over the Washington Galaxy.  Michigan moved within a single win of the Vandy, but it came at a steep cost, as the Wolves lost a key offensive playmaker in C Warren Marlow.

“We got the W, and that’s what counts the most,” said Michigan coach Ron Wright.  “But losing Warren… that’s a real blow.”

The Wolves notched their win thanks to a little-used reserve.  Under ordinary circumstances, F Isaac Preston wouldn’t be expected to play at all in the Finals.  He played in only 17 games this season, recording 3 assists and no goals.  But when LW Vladimir Beruschko suffered an injury in the last week of the season, Preston was thrust into a starting spot.

“My first priority was, don’t embarrass myself or the team,” said Preston.

The reserve forward made very little impact through the first three games.  But in this game, Preston came through when it counted.  About a minute into overtime, Michigan D Bjorn Tollefson faked a slapshot from the left faceoff circle.  He got Galaxy G Roger Orion to commit, then slid a pass over to Preston.  With a wide-open net, Preston buried the game-winning shot under the crossbar.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that open, not even in practice,” said Preston.  “If I’d missed it, I’m pretty sure my teammates would have beaten me to death.

Preston’s winner capped a flurry in the final five minutes of frenzied action, which stood in stark contrast to most of the play up to that point.  Michigan struggled all game to enter the zone and get shots on net, much as Washington had done in the first two games.  Michigan got off only 20 shots in the entire game, including a season-low four in a brutal second period.  “It’s like they watched our game film from the first two and turned our own game plan against us,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.

The Galaxy, meanwhile, were able to generate more offense, but had a devil of a time getting pucks past Wolves goalie Dirk Lundquist.  “You can’t fake him out, you can’t sneak one under him, you can’t fool him, nothing,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.  “I think he must be able to read minds or something.”

Late in the first period, Washington C Eddie Costello beat Lundquist on a breakaway to give the Galaxy the lead.  Early in the third, Bailes struck on the power play to tie it up.  But that was it for offense… at least until the final five minutes.

With three and a half minutes left in regulation, Galaxy LW Walt Camernitz accidentally caught Marlow under the eye with a high stick.  On the resulting power play, Wolves C Wesley Knight deflected a slapshot past Orion to put Michigan ahead 2-1.

“That’s on me,” said Camernitz.  “In that situation, late in a close game, I can’t take a penalty like that.  Got to maintain better control of my stick.”

A disconsolate silence fell over Constellation Center, as the Galaxy seemed doomed to a heartbreaking defeat.  But in the waning seconds of the game, Washington launched a final desperate rush.  A Thurman slapshot got lost in a scrum in front of the net.  The puck bounced between bodies as Lundquist tried to get a glove on it.  Finally, with four seconds left, the puck squirted behind Lundquist and over the goal line.  Wright challenged the goal, claiming that a Galaxy player had kicked it in.  After several minutes of review, the referees upheld the goal, as the crowd exploded with delight. Costello got credit for the tally.

Fortunately for the Wolves, they prevailed in overtime, although with a cost.  Marlow made the initial pass that led to Michigan’s winning goal, but he paid for it when Galaxy D Rusty Anderson laid a devastating hit on him and Marlow’s head hit the ice.  After the game, he entered the league’s concussion protocol.  Wright sounded doubtful that his second-line center would be able to return in the series.

“We’ll have to reevaluate him tomorrow and see where things stand,” said the coach.

The Galaxy suffered a loss as well, with D Leonard Wright being sidelined after taking a rough open-ice hit.  He suffered an upper-body injury, and Washington coach Rodney Reagle confirmed that he is likely to miss the rest of the series.

The Galaxy face an uphill battle, having to win the next three games in a row with half of their top defensive pairing on the shelf.  “I’ve already got Bartlett’s Book of Inspiring Sports Cliches by my bedside,” said Reagle.  “I’ll be working on my big speech tomorrow morning.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 4”

2016 SHL Finals – Game 2

Michigan SmallWashington SmallMICHIGAN GRAY WOLVES 2, WASHINGTON GALAXY 0

Every player dreams of playing his best when the stage is biggest.  Michigan Gray Wolves goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist is living the dream in the SHL Finals.  Already universally recognized as the league’s best netminder, Lundquist has somehow managed to elevate his game to the next level in the postseason.  With the help of a stifling Michigan defense, he posted his second straight shutout of the Washington Galaxy, as the Wolves got some late-game lightning from their third line to claim a 2-0 victory and a 2-0 lead in the Finals.  It’s the first time in SHL history that anyone has posted back-to-back shutouts, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for his time.

“How ’bout The Bear, everybody!” said Michigan coach Ron Wright after the game.  “He’s just playing on a different plane than everyone else.  He sees angles in his head that no one else sees.”

Lundquist was quick to credit his defenders for their role in his performance.  “I could not have done this without my teammates in front of me,” said the Wolves netminder.  “I didn’t have to make many ten bell saves, because the defense was denying them good looks.  They made me look very good.”

The Wolves’ blue-line corps definitely turned in a strong outing.  Through the first two periods, they limited Washington to a mere 10 shots.  The Wolves dominated the play in the neutral zone, and on the rare occasions when the Galaxy did cross the blue line, Michigan’s defensemen did a good job angling them away from the net.  “They just shut us down completely,” said Galaxy RW Jefferson McNeely.  “It definitely felt like the ice was tilted against us.”

But Galaxy G Roger Orion was doing a fine job in his end, turning aside 20 Michigan shots over the first two frames.  When Washington drew a pair of penalties in close succession at the start of the second, Orion stood on his head and stopped several quality chances.  “We were getting a little frustrated,” said RW Gordon Lunsford.  “We were dominating the play, but we weren’t getting any results.  But Coach Wright kept us up.  He told us that if we kept up the same level of intensity, we’d get through eventually.”

Both teams stepped up their offense in a frantic third period, combining for 29 shots after producing only 30 in the first two periods combined.  “Both sides were really sniffing out a goal there,” said Wright.  But even as more shots came their way, Lundquist and Orion remained perfect.  As the minutes ticked away, both teams grew more desperate.  “There was a real first-goal-wins sense there in the third,” said Galaxy LW Casey Thurman.

With less than four minutes left in the game, the Wolves finally broke through, with C Wesley Knight deflecting a shot past Orion’s left blocker.  A little more than 30 seconds later, Wolves D Patrick Banks stuffed home a juicy rebound to double Michigan’s lead.  As Banks celebrated with their third-line mates, the Galaxy hung their heads.

“We fought them dead even all the way,” said Thurman, “and then we fell apart at the end.  Tough way to lose, for sure.”

The good news for Washington is that the action now shifts back to Constellation Center for the next three games.  Unless the Galaxy can solve Lundquist, though, they won’t have a shot at getting back in this series.

Washington coach Rodney Reagle remains confident in his team’s chances.  “Whenever I’m in a tough spot, I seek inspiration from the words of my favorite philosopher, Mr. T,” said Reagle.  “As the great man once said, ‘To be a bodyguard is to be a kamikaze pilot.  Dedicated.’  The same is true with hockey.  We’re dedicated, and we’re ready to get back in this.”

Continue reading “2016 SHL Finals – Game 2”